A Weekly Letter from Rabbi Sam Levine 12.24.21

December 24, 2021

Why do we study Torah?

When we begin reading a new book of the Torah, as we will this coming Shabbat, it gives us a chance to re-set, to take a step back and evaluate the Torah with a wider lens. Rather than focusing on a minute aspect of the week’s parasha, as we often do, or perhaps at a theme that runs through the weekly reading, we have an opportunity to look at the broader trends of the book and of the book’s context in the Torah as a whole.

For observant Jews, the study of Torah is an imperative. For most Jews in the liberal Jewish community, however, Torah study is a choice. It makes sense, therefore, for us to ask, Why study Torah? Why should I take the time? Why does it matter? How does Torah study impact my life and how might it influence my world-view (if at all)? 

A bird’s eye view of Sefer Shmot, the Book of Exodus, might answer some of these questions. As we read the first sedra this Shabbat, we are reminded of the radical statement that our Torah makes about the divine and the divine’s relationship to humanity. The God who guided the patriarchs and the matriarchs, who established personal relationships with them and promised them blessing, success, and land, is now set to make good on that promise. But God’s view has expanded greatly too; now, the relationship is not with individuals but with an entire people. We learn that God recognizes suffering on a mass scale and is prepared to act to alleviate it. 

When, at the burning bush, Moses inquires what God’s name is so that he may go back and tell the people, God famously tells him, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” (variously translated as “I Am That I Am”; “I Am Who I Am”; “I Will Be What I Will Be”). God continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14). This is a God of being, of existence, of life. Those qualities are at the very core of this God’s essence. Contrast this with Pharoah, a self-proclaimed god: Pharoah enslaves and oppresses. Finally, Pharoah murders; he tells the midwives, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” 

Rabbi Hilly Haber, in an excellent d’var Torah for the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) references the 16th century Italian Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno’s comment on God’s unusual name. Seforno writes: 

God is an independent existence, not subject to influences by other phenomena nor caused by them. Seeing that this is so, it follows that God loves existing and beings that exist. It follows, then, that God deeply resents anything or anyone who acts in a manner contrary to existence. It is written in Ezekiel (18:32), “for I do not desire the death of those who die.” From this it follows that God must love righteousness and justice, the objective of both virtues being the continued existence of all who deserve it. And therefore God must hate injustice and cruelty, as these vices are apt to terminate the existence of the victims of these vices. Clearly, then, God must hate the violence and cruelty perpetrated on you by the Egyptians.

The God of Exodus is the Sun of existence, around which the planets of righteousness, justice, mercy, charity, love, and an entire solar system of other divine-human virtues rotate. But are these exclusively Jewish values? After all, it is the people of Israel whom God showers with attention, the people of the old covenant made with their ancestors. In what way is this the God of the whole world?

A famous midrash answers the question. When the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea of Reeds, “the ministering angels wanted to sing a song but the Holy Blessed One said, ‘The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing songs?’” (Megillah 10b). “The work of my hands” – this is the God of all of creation. The wicked are punished, but this God will always come to the aid of the underdog.

Of course, the theology gets more complicated from there, but Exodus lays out the essential thesis: God’s project is about the celebration of existence: life, mercy, compassion, justice, liberation. 

This is why we study Torah. To be reminded of what’s important, of what God is about, and of how we might be able to imitate that, to strive for it, even just a little.

Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,

Rabbi Sam Levine